Angel Olsen’s ‘Fire’ hard to contain
Indie folk artist hints at various styles on third album
While listening to Missouri-based singer-songwriter Angel Olsen’s third album “Burn Your Fire for No Witness,” it’s tempting to start making a list of all the artists she’s evoking. It’s not because she’s parroting other musicians or aping styles that aren’t her own; it’s because she exists in that nebulous in-between where you’re thinking, “Who is this, and where have I heard her before?”
Olsen, who brings her striking brand of indie folk to the Bartlett on Wednesday, has one of those voices that’s difficult to pin down. It can drip with angst one minute and snarl with contempt the next, and it combines the otherworldly quavering of Joanna Newsom with the airy lilt of Joan Baez. If you were to take out some of the guitar fuzz and vocal reverb from her songs, you might be left with an early ’60s pop ballad, a ’70s countrypolitan heartbreaker or an evocative Joni Mitchell vignette.
She’s chameleonic and adaptable without ever seeming to scatter off in a thousand different directions, and she has collaborated with the likes of Bonnie “Prince” Billy (they played a few gigs as the Babblers, a cover band that dressed in footed pajamas, hoods and sunglasses) and former Wilco member Leroy Bach.
Olsen’s first two records – 2011’s “Strange Cacti” and 2012’s “Half Way Home” – are melancholy, haunted affairs, her vocals reduced to a faraway echo, and they’re made up of songs about loss and longing and introspection. There’s a certain boldness, a sense of assurance and maybe even a little anger in “Burn Your Fire for No Witness,” and it suggests exciting possibilities for her next release.
The song “Hi-Five” plays out like a tribute to Hank Williams, right down to its opening lyrics (“I feel so lonesome I could cry”). The seven-minute slow burn of “White Fire” sounds like it could be a lost Leonard Cohen track. The vaguely twangy “Lights Out” recalls Emmylou Harris, and you can hear hints of Roy Orbison’s vocal inflections here and there.
But it’s the record’s second track, a short, propulsive burst of garage rock titled “Forgiven/Forgotten,” that confidently announces the arrival of a very different Angel Olsen. It’s one of the few songs that wouldn’t fit comfortably on either of her first two records, and when she hit the song’s catchiest refrain (“I don’t know anything / But I love you”), we’re not quite sure if she’s singing in desperation, exasperation, exhilaration or all three.
Olsen is a lot of things, some of them seemingly contradictory – wistful yet grim, open yet enigmatic, cautious yet optimistic. But one thing she’ll certainly never be is predictable.